The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes

The Church
Benjamin Gerhardt

he loading and unloading zones of Municipal Airport reeked of carbon monoxide as teams of faded yellow taxicabs jockeyed into positions for their potential passengers. A man stood amidst the canary-colored vehicles. He had three suitcases that were uniformly positioned from largest to smallest, the largest resting ever so slightly on the man’s right calf.

A slight breeze lifted the semi-transparent exhaust fumes from the cars and one cloud slowly lingered around the suitcases before dissipating into the cold November sky.

A slight shadow of stubble that surrounded his lower face mixed with the weariness of his sunken eyes, producing the features of a man that had just returned from a journey that had taken years from his life. His cheeks looked as though they were finally getting some color back. He was wearing his cleanly pressed Army Combat Uniform given to him after his discharge from the service. The olive green uniform was a brilliant piece of craftsmanship, not one stitch out of place. It held with it a radiance of professionalism, except for one minor flaw. The measurements for the uniform were for that of a man 30 pounds heavier than the one wearing it. The fabric wrinkled off his shoulders. This man looked extremely emaciated, as if he had gone three months as an MIA in the South Pacific, which was the reality of his recent past. During that hellish nightmare, food had been a scarce commodity, and he had just recently been finding his hunger and had an easier time holding down food. Amongst the other bustling commuters he looked like a boy in that man’s uniform.

While he was waiting, the man checked his luggage, making sure that it was still uniformed. He then reached into his left breast pocket and took out a black and white picture of a young woman. The sight of the picture made him crack a quick grin at first, but as he continued staring, his features changed to a distant gaze. He stared at the woman, gazing at her as though she seemed foreign to the man, as if the woman had been from a different time, when he was a different person: youthful, energetic, carefree, and altogether innocent. He studied the picture a moment more before running his thumb gently across her face. Then, as quickly as he had retrieved the picture, he placed it back into his pocket and buttoned the flap. He straightened out his shirt, tucked it in, made sure the buttons traveled a straight line, and checked the nametag to make sure that it wasn’t crooked. The name "Schmitt" glistened back in the sun. It was time for him to finally go home. All that he had to do now was to wait in anticipation.

Chad Koker had managed to wedge his car into the current of vehicles both arriving and departing the airport. He did not enjoy going to such a cramped destination. Fender benders and mass confusion seemed to always lurk in these outposts. But he had been radioed to pick up one Joseph Schmitt from the "Municipal" and take him directly to his wife, Margaret. This pickup was a "Code One," meaning that lift was of the utmost importance and treated with swift action and attention. The reason that Koker had been told that this was a priority was that this Joseph Schmitt had been away at war and at home was a woman who had not seen her husband for God knows how long.

Koker opened his door and grabbed for the cigarette teetering in the space between his right ear and his oily black hair. He held a small white sign with the word "Schmitt" stenciled on it in his right hand and upon rounding the driver’s side of the car; he placed the sign in front of his slightly protruding belly. He and noticed a small, quiet man in Armed Forces attire waiting with his bags next to him as he had put the car into park, but he would wait until the man read the sign and see if he went for his luggage before he would be sure. He placed his backside on the hood of the cab and rested momentarily; slightly twisting his body left to right, making sure the whole airport audience could read.

The small man did not seem to notice the cabbie. His thoughts seemed off into the clouds, staring at the sky. His lips moved ever so slightly as if he was speaking under his breath but no words could be heard from the cab. His daydream was not a nightmare, but the fantasy did not seem to be pleasing the man either. Koker coughed loudly then looked down at his feet. He pretended to fiddle with the cigarette that had been lit and was now halfway smoked though. He waited for a few seconds before looking up in the direction of the man again; making sure that there had been enough time for reality to snap back in and the sign to be read.

When he did finally look up, he noticed that the man was in the process of grasping all three pieces and was shuffling them in his general direction. He had stared away too long, creating a scenario in which he looked like a lazy cab driver, impatiently waiting for his fare. He cursed under his breath for his ignorance and then stepped towards the man
"Mr. Schmitt, let me take your bags. I know you’re in hurry to get back home." The cabbie awkwardly grabbed for Joe’s luggage with his left hand and extending his right to shake Joe’s. "I thank you for all you have done for our country. You’re a true hero…"
Joe looked down at the hand and then at the man. He slowly let go of his belongings and took it but spoke no acceptance of the gesture to Koker. His handshake was rather brief but forceful. He then shifted his gaze from Koker to the ground down before making his way to the backseat of the cab. He slowly shut the back door as Koker remained on the sidewalk for a second, gathering his thoughts. The cabbie looked at the backseat, pondered on what to say next, turned his head to the bags and then shrugged and opened the trunk.

What do you say to a man who has come back from war? A man who has placed his life and his hope on the line, all for the future of the country that told him to go fight for honor? These thoughts raced through the Chad’s head as he closed the trunk, got in and started the car. He would never understand the reality of war, nor did he even try to understand it. The only understandable thought was that this man had been living in totally different world than the one that Chad knew and he needed to get this guy home quickly. Koker had a girlfriend and he knew what it felt like to be away from a loved one for a number of days or more at a time. But off to war was different story. There was nothing to compare that to.

The trip was quiet on their way back to the house. Koker wanted to congratulate him on making it back. He wanted to call him a hero. He just wanted to say something but as he looked at Joe, he could see in the eyes of the man that he was somewhere else. His body was in the backseat of a cab, but his thoughts were outside, drifting from his eyes that continued to stare into space. He was distant and silent, a man that either had a million things or nothing at all on his mind. He continued to drive. He felt a somber happiness for the man. He never would know what he went through, never know the horrors.

They were in Sheffield again, the end route. Koker drove past Casey’s General Store and made left at the next rode. He glanced into the rearview mirror to see his passenger needed to be woken up. No, Joe was awake. Actually, he seemed much more than just awake. His thoughts had come back into the cab. His face, although not smiling, still appeared to have a vibrant character to it and his eyes seemed a shade brighter. As they neared the house Joe looked around at a town that had to be different, one he thought he would probably never see again.
"We’re getting close sir. A few more blocks and you’ll be back…"
"Stop here." It was the first thing that Joe had said since entering the car.
Chad hesitated before stepping on the brakes. They were still two or three blocks away. "But sir, we’re not to your house ye…"
"Stop here, sir." Joe paused for a moment and then swallowed hard, "and wait please."
Koker pulled over to the right and stopped in front of a small white house, nowhere close to the address he was given. The white house they stopped in front of was old and decrepit; a small piece of guttering was lying on the front lawn. He wanted to ask some questions, but Joe was already out of the car. He wondered whose house this was and why a man would want to stop here before his own home. Was he given the wrong address?

Then he noticed that Joe was walking behind the car and crossing the street. He was not moving towards the feeble white house. Koker fixed his eyes on a small church. He watched as Joe picked up his pace, practically running into the through the front doors.

He had been waiting for 5 minutes when Joe emerged from the front doors of Saint Patrick’s Catholic Church with a priest. They walked down the steps together, both laughing with one another, the priest’s arm over Joe’s shoulders. Joe turned towards the pastor, took his hand, shook it, and then gave him a hug, ending with a strong pat on the back. Joe walked back to the car, taking the sleeve of his uniform and wiping his nose and face. His eyes were red as he entered the back seat.
"All right sir, we can go to my house now." Joe looked at the rearview mirror. Koker sat in silence for a moment then started the car and drove the remaining 5 blocks.

As they approached the house Koker stared at Joe from the rearview mirror again. He wanted to say something, but nothing came to him to break the ice. Then, as if Joe was reading his mind, he began to speak. His head was held low, his eyes staring at the floor mat. His voice was soft and cracked as he spoke. "Sir, I thank you for stopping and waiting for me as I went to my church… I made a deal with a man a while ago when I was in some trouble. I told him that if he got me out of that trouble, the first thing that I would do when I got home, even before seeing my family, was to go to his house and visit him…and thank him. He answered me and I had to start repaying the debt."

Koker unloaded the bags from the trunk as Joe stared at his farmhouse. He stood there, frozen in time, just like the house in front of him. He smiled slightly and then turned to the cabbie and handed him a dollar.
"I can’t take this," said the cabbie.
"Yes you can," Joe said. "You made me a very happy man today. I haven’t felt this way for a long time. I only have two true loves in my life. You took me to one and now you have dropped me off at the other, and for that I am eternally grateful. Thank you."
He shook Koker’s hand, took a small breath, held it, then exhaled and began walking towards his house. The cabbie looked at the dollar that lay slightly creased in his hand. He looked at Joe, then got into his cab, pulled away, and watched the man returning to his past life in the rearview mirror as he drove away.

© Benjamin Gerhardt November 2006

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